Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide.
CNN's near-constant coverage of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has led to widespread derision and critique of the network. How can a strategy ridiculed by critics, media watchers and even President Barack Obama have spurred a TV ratings and digital traffic spike for the network?
Because the audience told them it would.
NowThis News poked fun at CNN's ongoing coverage of the missing plane.
Data from three different analytics systems, combined with overnight TV ratings, told CNN to double down on the missing airliner. The intense coverage paid off.
"I think that if people want to be critical of CNN for over-covering a story, that's totally fine with us," CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker told Mashable.
"Clearly, the audience has spoken and said that what CNN did was correct.""Clearly, the audience has spoken and said that what CNN did was correct."
CNN's use of data to track the habits of consumers online and on TV helped the outlet realize that the plane story had legs. That research prompted the network to keep the story on air longer than might seem intuitive to a news producer.
About 18 months after taking the top job, Zucker has transformed the editorial side of the network and its online properties. The newsroom, once split between digital and television, is now more cohesive. Popular, apolitical celebrities like Anthony Bourdain and Morgain Spurlock have shows in spots once occupied by more traditional news programs. CNN is, on the surface, a very different network than it was a few years ago.
That change is not only skin deep. The company most synonymous with news has embraced data to help understand not just what to say and how to say it, but where to say it and when to stop saying it.
The result has been a deluge of plane coverage, a spike in television ratings and online traffic, and concern about the direction of "the most trusted name in news."
The numbers game
MH370 went missing on the morning of March 8, Malaysian Standard Time — Friday evening on the East Coast of the U.S.
Malaysia Airlines says it has lost contact with a flight carrying 227 passengers en route to Beijing. http://t.co/xFJqzF9rJP
— CNN Breaking News (@cnnbrk) March 8, 2014
CNN first reported the story around 8 p.m. ET, and mobile page views and video views both shot up more than 150%. Other analytics highlighted that the story outperformed other articles in the same spot on CNN's homepage.
A big story driving traffic isn't surprising; CNN is known to perform better during periods of breaking news, but this was different.
In the following days, the story continued to build. CNN's data showed that people had not grown tired of the story — they wanted more. That led CNN to dedicate more resources, attention and time to the story.
CNN's ratings in 2014 had been slightly lower than in 2013, until the MH370 story broke. In the chart below, the red line represents 2014 ratings — note the significant boost in March during the plane coverage, followed by a gentle taper. The yellow line represents 2013 — the Boston Marathon bombings in April of that year sent CNN's ratings soaring, a testament to what big breaking news can do for the network.
KC Estenson, general manager of CNN Digital, said the missing Malaysian airliner was just the most visible example of the network's embrace of data as an editorial tool.
"We're looking at consumption patterns and trends across the web, mobile, social and video, and then on third-party sites, looking at that and making decisions about how we program for all platforms," said Estenson, who oversees CNN's data operations. "You're seeing that start to come online and start to bear fruit with something like the Malaysian airline story."
Data now informs nearly every part of CNN's editorial decisions.Data now informs nearly every part of CNN's editorial decisions.
Dataminr combs Twitter to help journalists find stories as they happen. Outbrain is employed to analyze real-time mobile consumption and Chartbeat to monitor how each story performs. Content is tested with Optimizely. Moat will soon map the performances of stories on CNN sites in real time as well as help with ad serving. Omniture, an Adobe-owned analytics company, is also in the mix.
CNN's data operations began before Zucker arrived but became an area of emphasis after he started. The two met to discuss CNN's digital future before Zucker actually took the job, Estenson said.
These tools are not exclusive to CNN, but it weaves them together into a potent combination that is pushing the network to test the limits of what it covers and how. Editorial judgment is now augmented with a deeper understanding of what the audience wants.
"That data we're bringing in online is now also helping to embolden Jeff [Zucker] to tell the TV producers 'stay with this story,'" Estenson said.
Everybody's a critic
CNN's coverage puts the network in a difficult spot. Embracing data and pushing the MH370 story beyond conventional limits has helped the company reap television rating and online traffic bumps. But the success has been accompanied by a chorus of detractors, some ridiculing the coverage and others questioning the editorial decision making.
Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show," former CNN host Larry King and plenty of others have lined up to lampoon or lambaste the outlet. Few have been as brutal as TIME's Joe Klein, who said CNN has "gone in the toilet."
The collective reaction of CNN executives: Numbers, not critics, are the measure of success.
The network is purposefully moving to fulfill viewer wishes, and that might mean more MH370 coverage going forward.
"Our job is to take the biggest stories of the day and report them and synthesize them and analyze them for the audience," said Andrew Morse, an SVP at CNN who heads up newsgathering. "We'll continue to do that and again the audience has clearly been interested in the disappearance of the Malaysian plane."
The people's channel
The internal changes combined with the shakeup in CNN's primetime lineup have left some analysts wondering just what the channel is. The first 24-hour news network no longer shows news 24/7.
CNN has shifted its primetime lineup to more narrative, documentary-style programming. An evening once packed with the news of the day now features personalities like Mike Rowe, who "visits unique individuals and joins them in their respective undertakings," and John Walsh, who covers international criminal investigations.
"We are a place where people come for breaking news all the time, but we also recognize that news doesn't break all the time," Zucker said. "What we're trying to do is provide other information and different types of storytelling."
Other channels that previously produced this type of content have moved more toward reality and competition programming, Zucker said. Combine that with the shift of news consumption toward digital — particularly toward mobile — and CNN believes its new programming puts it in a position to fill a gap.
That gap is markedly different from the one CNN filled when it launched in 1980.
"It's obvious that CNN has gone from a place of being among the most serious and the only, at one point, 24-hour news network to one that is very noticeable chasing after audience and putting its news judgment sometimes in the backseat," said Liz Spayd, editor in chief of the Columbia Journalism Review.
Spayd said the emergence of analytics in digital media had given consumers a much-needed voice in journalism.Spayd said the emergence of analytics in digital media had given consumers a much-needed voice in journalism. From the editor's chair, she cautioned, the temptation to chase the numbers can be strong.
"Like with most things in life you have to do it in balance. I think what's disturbing to people is when you see a news organization that seems to have almost lost their purpose, that has lost the reason to be in that market place to begin with. I'm not saying CNN is at that point, but I think they're being watched in that way."
There are some indications that the short-term advantages of catering to viewers come at a cost. A Pew Research Center study found that one in three people thought CNN's coverage of MH370 has been excessive, although about half said it was the correct amount. YouGov, a brand-tracking firm, found that public perception of CNN dipped slightly after three weeks of coverage. The success is also short-lived. Television ratings that rose right after the disappearance of MH370 have returned to previous levels.
And what of the vaunted CNN brand that many believe CNN is destroying? The business community sees things differently than the media critics. CNN's changes are regarded as a shrewd move to update an old model.
Josh Feldmeth, CEO of brand management firm Interbrand New York, said CNN was positioning itself well with modern consumers.
"We're seeing the brand enter what we call the 'age of you,' which is the expectation that the brand is fully customizable, personalizable and revolves around their needs and wants," Feldmeth said.
Reputation also matters with advertisers. Jack Myers, chairman of MyersBizNet, a cooperative of media companies, agencies and marketers, said CNN's stock has risen as Zucker's strategy has taken shape.
"The advertising community has a more open and positive attitude toward CNN today than they've had in quite a while," Myers said.